A brief sojourn in Karakol

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Kyrgyzstan  , Ysyk-Köl,
Friday, April 27, 2012

We awoke early in Cholpon-Ata to take the winding road that hugged Issyk-Kul's northern shore in the direction of Karakol. The inevitable gaggle of taxi drivers was waiting for us at the main marshrutka stop, and within seconds had identified us as tourists. Like any taxi drivers in this part of the world, they assumed that we would have unlimited wads of cash burning holes in our pockets, when the holes in our pockets were in fact due to eight months of heavy wear-and-tear. We battled through them, and spent quite some time locating the stop for Karakol, before hopping onto a minibus and setting off.

The journey itself was relatively painless, but as we sped through little villages along the bumpy road, packed tightly next to the other passengers, it was clear that any possibility of getting a decent view of the lake or the mountains that encircle it was highly optimistic. Our arrival in Karakol was, as with most other large cities, plagued by being dropped far outside the city centre, from where we had to take another local marshrutka to our accommodation.

We arrived at the Yak Tours guesthouse in the early afternoon, and were taken to a room that could only be described as kitsch. The maroon floral wallpaper, tinged with gold details, matched perfectly the dusty Victorian-style chest of drawers and unnecessarily busy floral print duvet. For added bizarreness, a pair of old-fashioned mannequins in the corner of the room sat in front of the net curtains, sporting blue and white stripy bathing costumes. This was perhaps the most unusual accommodation we had experienced so far, but the price was good and we were perfectly content to remain surrounded by faux 19th Century oddities.

I stepped out into the courtyard, where a floppy-haired Kiwi named Nick sat alongside a bear-like, bearded American named Chad. As I began speaking to them, the owner arrived in a flurry of questions.

“What do you want to do in Karakol? Do you like to climb mountains?”

“Um,” I stuttered, “we love to climb mountains, yes, but my wife has a bad leg and it is hard to reach them.”

“No problem,” he replied, almost too quickly. His name, it transpired, was Valentin, and he was a former motorcycle trainer for the Soviet army. The following day, he was taking a group of people into the Altyn Arashan valley – hardly what most people would consider a valley, I thought, given that its lowest point stands at 3,000 metres above sea level. His face and hands were gnarly, an elongated moustache curling a snarl over his upper lip. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a breed of so-called biznessmen, emerged; a kind of wheeler-dealer, slightly shady, but charming and ruthless. Valentin fit this description very well indeed.

Having assumed that such a trip would be extremely unlikely, we had left close to all of our cold weather and hiking gear in Bishkek with David and Dorian, for us to collect on our return from the lake. It was a liberating feeling, carting around only one large and one small bag, but we feared that the altitude would cause us to wear all of our clothes simultaneously, like a pair of hippie Michelin Men.

“Don't worry,” interjected Chad, a highly experienced mountaineering guide who had scaled Kilimanjaro no less than thirteen times, “it won't be that much cooler than here.”

Knowing that this could be our only opportunity to get out to the truly remote and rugged areas of Kyrgyzstan, we leapt on the opportunity, signed up, and set out exploring Karakol itself. The city – Kyrgyzstan's fourth largest – was a distinctly low-rise affair, with quiet, leafy streets and single storey Russian style wooden houses. It was unlike any Kyrgyz or Uzbek city we had experienced so far, and we wandered the peaceful streets surprised by the lack of shouting, traffic and street traders.

Almost opposite the guesthouse, the modestly sized Russian Orthodox cathedral still manages to tower above most other buildings in the city. Clad in a rich, dark wood, the cathedral's golden domes perch atop its spires with a sheen that contrasts pleasantly with the matte of the wood. We found the entrance, and were beckoned, unconvincingly, inside by one of the many women milling around at the front door. We peered inside, but decided against participating in what seemed to be a huge cake sale of some description. The priest stood outside the door, his long, plaited ponytail flicking behind his head as he spoke through an impressively bushy beard that was greying a little at the corners. A young, blond-haired apprentice – with neither beard nor ponytail – stood awkwardly at his side, hanging on his mentor's every word.

After finding dinner at the larger and more raucous one of Karakol's two bazaars, the Dungan mosque on the other side of town was our destination the following morning. Built in a pagoda style, the Chinese Dungan community in Karakol invited a Chinese architect and workmen to complete the project in 1910. A man with distinctly oriental features sat in front of the main entrance, his wispy moustache and goatee hanging from his face, a reminder that this ethnic minority in Karakol remains. The slightly run-down but elegant wooden building, built completely without nails, extended its curved and pointed roof across the small garden in which it and a number of blossoming apricot trees stood. Its bright red and pale blue painting obscured the intricate detail hidden beneath the eaves – a Chinese dragon carved into the rafters, interlocking vines and flowers along its length – but beamed brightly in the sun nonetheless.

Although there is relatively little in the way of 'sightseeing' in Karakol, the multi-ethnic history of this part of Kyrgyzstan is an important one that illustrates the way that different groups – Kyrgyz, Uighurs, Dungans, Russians, and probably more – have crossed paths in this region for centuries. As we prepared to depart for our trip to Altyn Arashan, I could not help but notice that the route that follows the Arashan River is the same route that traders would have followed in antiquity, to head east into China. We had never planned this route, but our paths crossed serendipitously at Karakol, and so we left our fortunes in the laps of the gods and pushed east further still.
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